Schooling in France is mandatory as of age 6, the first year of primary school. Many parents start sending their children earlier though, around age 3, as nursery classes (maternelle) are usually affiliated to a borough’s primary school. Some even start earlier at age 2 in pré-maternelle classes, which are essentially daycare centres. Primary and secondary schools are predominantly public but almost 20% of students in France attend private schools. These private schools are essentially Catholic schools in which there is religious instruction in the curriculum; they select their own teachers but must follow the same curriculum as state schools if they wish to remain under contract to the state education system. This means that the state pays the teachers and consequently, private schools in France charge low fees, and are accessible to pupils from all sectors of society.
The state education system attaches great importance to the principle of secularism (la laïcité), and there is no formal teaching of religion in state schools. However, recent events in France have led to a growing demand for schools to teach religious awareness, this being seen by some as necessary for the development of greater understanding between people of different religions. Pupils, therefore, have civics courses to teach them about la République, its function, its organisation, and its famous motto Liberté, Égalité, Fraternité.
Ecole maternelles take pupils from age 2 to 6 and prepare them for entry into primary school. The French école maternelle is more than just a playschool; the curriculum includes reading and writing, numeracy and even sometimes a foreign language, as well as artistic and creative activities. There are three classes, les petits, les moyens and les grands. Prior to nursery schools, there are also a lot of private and public nurseries, called crèches. These daycare centres keep babies from 2 months to 3 years old, until they can attend school.
Ecole primaire or Ecole élémentaire (6-12 years)
The Primary School curriculum in France is similar to that in other countries, and includes literacy and numeracy, with classes in French, arithmetic, but also geography and history, the arts, and more and more frequently a foreign language, usually English. It is in the first year that students will learn to write and develop their reading skills. Pupils have an average of 28 hours classes per week. The five classes in the Ecole primaire are, in order, CP (cours préparatoire), CE1, CE2 (cours élémentaire), CM1 and CM2 (cours moyen).
Collège (11-15 years)
The Middle School is designed to provide all pupils with a fundamental secondary education, after which a certain degree of specialisation will be introduced. The programme in collège includes French, maths, history, geography, technical education, art/music, physical education, civic education, some science, and at least one foreign language. The four classes are called sixième, cinquième, quatrième and troisième.
Lycée (15-18 years)
The traditional French lycée covers the last three years of secondary education. There are two main types of traditional lycée, the lycée général or lycée classique, and the lycée technique. In big towns and cities, there will be a mix of both types; in smaller towns, there may not be a lycée technique. The main function of the lycée is to prepare pupils to sit the baccalauréat (or bac) exam, the equivalent of British A levels. The bac can lead to higher education studies or directly to professional life. The three classes are known as seconde, première and terminale. There are different kinds of theory-oriented diplomas. Série scientifique focuses on natural sciences, physical sciences and maths; série économique et sociale on economics and social sciences; and série littéraire on French, foreign languages, philosophy, history, geography and optional arts. Pupils in a lycée technique may begin to specialise in a fairly narrow technical field, in addition to their general secondary studies.
Lycées pros, as they are commonly known, provide an essentially non-academic syllabus for young people intending to work in manual or clerical jobs. These qualifications are the baccalauréat professionnel (bac pro), CAP (Certificat d’aptitude professionnel) and BEP (Brevet d’enseignement professionnel), which focus on one of four fields: social/health, driving/transport, catering/hotels, and optics. Lycées du bâtiment and lycées agricoles specialise in building trades and agriculture. The professional baccalaureate requires three years of study and certifies the student to work in a qualified professional activity.